“The Empire Builders” No.3 ‘I’m Telling You Bert…’ (1945)

Empire builders No. 3

Much of the early construction of the Changi airstrip involved the removal of thousands of coconut palms. Des once said that the POWs put on a great show of false effort, digging all around the root ball and straining to remove the stump, taking a long time on each one, in order to slow down the work. In reality there was no tap root and the work could have been done quite quickly, which became apparent to one Japanese guard who climbed into the trench surrounding one particularly stubborn root ball, and kicked at it, to find it offered no resistance and simply fell over. Des did not mention the punishment meted out to the perpretrators, but no doubt they considered it was worth it!

‘To begin with the Ground Levelling Party comprised about 800 men, but it steadily expanded until every fit man was included, together with many who were far from fit. Survivors of the Thailand railway were numbered among them. The work consisted of nothing more or less than shifting hill to swamp.

Their bodies almost totally unprotected from the burning heat of the sun and the glare of the pulverised flat of the airstrip, the men toiled at the hillsides, excavating the soil and rock and loading it into hand trucks. These were pushed along the network of narrow-gauge railway lines to the edge of the swamp where the spoil was tipped. When one considers the grossly undernourished condition of the men, most of whom weighed less than two-thirds of their normal weight, and the fact that they were working for between ten and twelve hours a day in gruelling heat, it is truly remarkable what they achieved.’

Source: http://ukmamsoba.org/changi.htm

‘Light, two-foot gauge railways crept across the cleared sections of ground and men shifted hundreds of tons of earth daily by filling skips of one cubic yard capacity and pushing them to a dumping point where the soil was levelled out. The work was constant and was made a great deal harder by the crude tools issued to the workers: shovels and changkols with straight wooden handles and blades fashioned from petrol tins or galvanised iron made the work a great deal harder than it should have been.

Up to date machinery, left undestroyed in Malaya, now made its appearance on the work site. The light railways were replaced by heavy metre gauge, and tracks and caterpillar tractors towing four – and ten – yard – capacity skips moaned across the growing drome. Modern electric shovels and a great steam navvy kept half-a-dozen diesel locomotives pushing long lines of skips heaped with soil to the swamp edges. As each train stopped at a dumping point the ragged workers attacked it with their crude shovels, and within 15 minutes the empty train would be puffing back to the refilling point, leaving the prisoner, sweating and gasping, sitting on the line until the next unloading.

From the beginning of the work the prisoners had comforted themselves … that the war would be over long before the drome was complete, but in June 1944 they watched three fighter aircraft land on the northern arm and the first stage of the work was over.’

Most visitors to Singapore today know Changi as an international aviation hub rather than for its prisoner-of- war connections. But the modern airport that processes tens of millions of travellers each year sits on the foundations of the original aerodrome, built with prisoner-of-war labour in 1944.’

Source: Stan Arneil, ‘The Aerodrome At Changi Point’, in Lachlan Grant (ed.), The Changi Book, Published by New South in association with the Australian War Memorial, 2015, pg., 333 336